You don’t have to renovate or rip apart existing fixtures to turn your house into a smart home. Here’s how.
You can’t quite live like the Jetsons yet but you can get pretty close. They say your home is where your heart is, but if you want to make it smart, you are going to need more than that – you’ll need a digital assistant.
Don’t worry, we are not talking about a fancy virtual butler but the digital assistant already present on phones, namely Google Assistant which is available on Android devices.
To make it work seamlessly at home, you need the digital assistant on a standalone device or smart speaker and not on a phone, tablet or notebook.
Before we proceed, there is one caveat though – none of the smart speakers are officially here but don’t let that stop you, as you can still easily buy one online.
Google Home Mini is the ideal choice for a smart home assistant. — Google
And while there are plenty of smart speakers with Google Assistant, our top pick is the Google Home Mini because it’s compact, common and cheap.
As the main form of communication with the device is voice, you’ll want one for every part of the house you plan to interact with Google Assistant – so at RM180, the Google Home Mini is the ideal choice even though it isn’t a great speaker.
But if you have the money to splurge, consider the Google Home Max (RM2,000+) if you want something boomy or the Google Hub if you want one with a screen for video calls with Google Duo.
Alternatively, you could get one from companies like Sony, LG or Onkyo as they have at least one speaker with Google Assistant built-in.
To get started, install the Google Home app on your phone, and power up the Google Home Mini and just follow the instructions on the app – do note that if you have a version other than Britain’s, you’ll need an adaptor for the plug.
At your command
You now have Google at your beck and call, but the magic word is not “please” but “hey Google” or “okay Google” – say that and it will wake up and await your command.
You can ask it anything that you would search on Google – what’s the highest mountain, longest river, richest country and such.
But it can be more helpful than that so here are a few commands to kick things off:
Locate phone: I don’t know about you but I seem to be misplacing my phone all the time when home. To locate your phone, just say, “Hey, Google, find/call/ring my phone.” If you have more than one device linked to your Google account, it will list out the phones.
Convert currencies: I find this quite handy – just say “how much is US$50” or “how much is 500 ringgit in US dollars” and it will do the conversion for you.
Timers and alarms: I’m a klutz in the kitchen and I need help even when making half boiled eggs so I have a Google Home Mini in the kitchen so I can just say “set timer for five minutes”. It’s really handy because I don’t have to touch a phone or another device to set the timer which would require me to wash my hands.
Similarly, you can set an alarm as well before you go to bed by just saying “set alarm at 7am”. If you like to be woken up to music everyday, just say something like “Set Beethoven music alarm for 7am every day.” You can even snooze the alarm with your voice.
White noise: The feature I really enjoy is the one that helps me sleep at night – if the beer doesn’t do the job. Try it by saying “help me relax” or “play ambient noise”. Or make it play specific ones by asking it to “play river/rain/forest sounds”. It has more than 10 options.
Check scores: Missed a football match? Just ask Google for the score with sentences like “Did Arsenal win?”
Play music: Once you link your Spotify account in the Home app, you can stream music to your Google Home devices. You can play an entire album, your playlists, or just a song.
Pro tip: If you have more than one Google Home device, add them into a group in the Home app. You can now say “play Coldplay on Homegroup” and the music will play on all your speakers.
Spelling a word: As long as you know how to pronounce the word, Google Assistant can help you with the spelling.
Weather: To be frank, I hardly find the weather predictions accurate but I still can’t resist asking for a prediction, especially after a week of sweltering weather.
These commands are just the tip of the iceberg – you can do many more things, including playing a game of trivia.
Pro tip: Turn on Continued Conversation on the Home app so you don’t have to say “hey Google” after every command. Open the Home app and click on your profile icon at the bottom right. Now tap on settings and choose the Assistant tab and then Continued Conversation.
That’s just the basics so let’s move on to the more fun stuff …
Light up your life
A Google Home device by itself isn’t really that powerful or fun so to live like the Jetsons you will have to pair it with other smart devices. There is one caveat though – smart devices don’t come cheap.
The first and the best to start off with is lighting. Google Home devices support a number of brands, but my favourite is Philips Hue, which is officially in Malaysia now, and Lifx, which is not.
If you want something cheaper, go with the Xiaomi Yeelight – I find that the colour is not as warm or natural but your taste may vary.
In the case of Philips Hue, you are best off getting the starter set, as you’ll get the “bridge” or hub that’s essential to setting up the system. Hook up the bridge to the router and replace your regular lights with the Philips Hue bulbs – you get three with the kit.
Download the Philips Hue app and go through the setup process and then launch the Home app and click the + sign to link it with Philips Hue.
Now you have the option of controlling the lights from the Philips Hue app or just with your voice. You can ask Google to power on/off, dim/brighten and even change the colour of the lights without ever getting off the couch.
You can, of course, do more things with the app such as set the time when the lights will turn on and off – mine is set so that the lights go dimmer as the night progresses so I “force” myself to go to bed.
You can also use the lights as an “alarm” – you can make the ones in your bedroom turn on in the morning and they will become gradually brighter to mimic sunrise so that you wake up naturally. As I just hate waking up in the mornings, I don’t use this feature.
Pro tip: Make sure to set up the “good night” routine on Google Home – I have set it so that anytime I wish good night to Google it will switch off all my lights. To set it up, go to the Assistant tab on the Home app and choose Routines and pick Good Night. There are also other routines like Leaving Home that you can experiment to automate tasks.
The next thing you want to be able to do is control your non-smart devices at home such as TV, aircond and speakers.
To do this you need an infrared blaster and the most versatile (but not so user friendly) is the Logitech Harmony Hub. You can choose to get it with several choices of remote but I just got the hub for about RM600, as I didn’t want another remote.
Download the Harmony app and you’ll be guided to add a device – unfortunately you will need the model number of your devices so be prepared to look behind your TV and the sides of aircond to get them.
Once you have finished setting up the device you need to set up an “activity” to control it – don’t worry, you’ll be guided by the app. Now open the Home app and link the Harmony Hub just the way you did with Philips Hue, and the activities will show up as “remotes” on the app.
Now you can control all the devices you have set up in Harmony app. For instance, “hey, Google, turn on TV” will do just that.When you get a little more comfortable with the app, you can link multiple devices under one activity, such as your TV, speakers and aircond, so you can turn them all on or off at once.
Cast it with your voice
If you subscribe to Netflix then you should consider getting the Google Chromecast if you want voice automation. Chromecast, now in version 3, can be had for about RM170. Just hook it up to a free HDMI port on your TV and set it up on the app, and also link your Netflix account.
If you want to watch a show, just say “hey Google, play Friends on Netflix” and it will switch on the TV (most new models, at least) and play the show from where you left off the last time.
Now you can pause/resume the show and turn on/off subtitles with your voice, which is especially handy if you like to watch your shows while having dinner.
These are just some of the devices you can link to Google Home – there are plenty more from smart plugs and security cameras to locks, and the only limiting factor is your wallet.